The current debate over the state’s immigration policies recalls the bitter battles fought two decades ago, over Proposition 187.
Amparo Cid traces her work as an attorney helping recent immigrants and their families in the Central Valley fight injustices and potential deportation to her experience as a child in 1994.
That was when California voters passed Proposition 187, an initiative that denied undocumented immigrants access to publicly funded services. Back then, many California officials blamed the federal government for not doing more to keep people from crossing the border illegally.
Today, the roles are reversed.
The federal government wants the state to cooperate more in immigration enforcement. It sued California over state laws meant to increase protections for undocumented immigrants without serious criminal backgrounds.
This week, as President Donald Trump visited California for the first time during his presidency, he lambasted state elected officials over sanctuary policies, which he tweeted “put the safety and security of our entire nation at risk.”
To Cid, whose parents immigrated from Mexico, the perception of immigrants as a massive threat to the nation has striking parallels with California’s battle over Prop. 187. She believes just as she was impacted by the immigration debate in the state then, a younger generation is paying attention today.
“Kids are watching and hearing what’s coming out of federal decision makers,” said Cid, 33. “And those kids are going to grow up to be phenomenal agents of change. They will know, because they are living in this moment of time, that you have to speak up.”
Cid compares that to her own experience as a fifth-grade student when the debate over Prop. 187 was a turning point in her life and galvanized Latinos across the state.
“That was the very first time in my life that I was called a wetback,” said Cid. “And these were kids that I went to school with since kindergarten!”
Although Prop. 187 was approved by voters, its major provisions were blocked from being implemented by a federal court.
Tensions surround Prop. 187
At Cid’s church in Morgan Hill, St. Catherine’s of Alexandria, Father Jon Pedigo got hate mail after preaching unity and support for immigrants to his white parishioners.
“They didn’t like what they heard at the pulpit because we were talking about immigrants, we were talking about rights,” said Pedigo, 57. “You know people are calling us communists or socialists or you guys are terrible people.”
At the time, California was experiencing a severe economic recession with more than 720,000 jobs being lost, according to a 1998 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Those economic anxieties contributed to racial tensions across the state and especially in Morgan Hill.
Pedigo decided parishioners against Prop. 187, mostly Latino families, would need to push back. He proposed a march to the cathedral in San Jose, 20 miles away.
Morgan Hill Parishioners March
On Oct. 25, 1994, dozens of St. Catherine’s parishioners, including school-aged children such as Cid, met in a rundown parking lot near Morgan Hill’s downtown and began their march north.
As they left town passing apricot orchards and packing plants, Pedigo held a large wooden cross. Other marchers carried banners that read “No to discrimination” and “No to injustice,” said Jose Montemayor, now 70, a parishioner who helped organize the march.
“Prop. 187 opened up our eyes to the need of becoming more politically active,” said Montemayor, a naturalized U.S. citizen who began volunteering in voter registration drives due to the measure.
Even fatigue and hurting feet did not diminish the pride Nancy Gonzalez, then 14, sensed while marching with family and friends.
“It was very empowering,” said Gonzalez, now the mom of three children. “I thought, ‘We are out here, we are marching. We may or we may not make a difference, but people are definitely going to see us.’”
By the time marchers reached downtown San Jose at dusk, the group had swelled to about 200 as other people joined along the way, said Pedigo.
‘We Didn’t Know We Were That Powerful’
The Morgan Hill marchers were greeted by thousands of supporters filling the streets of downtown San Jose, according to media reports.
One of them was Teresa Castellanos, then a union organizer and young mom.
“That night was such a beautiful night,” said Castellanos, a fourth generation American. “That coming together to say we support each other, and we are a community here that contributes.”
Finally, Pedigo and the marchers streamed into the packed cathedral. While Pedigo took in the view of protesters inside holding candles, he had a realization.
“No one recognized that there was people power in the immigrant community and their allies,” said Pedigo, his voice breaking as he remembered that moment. “We didn’t know we were that powerful.”
Observers credit the reaction to Prop. 187 with increasing Latino voter registration by about 1 million over the next decade, increasing the number of Latinos elected to state office, and shifting that voter population support to Democrats.
That same sense of empowerment carries over to the current immigration battles.
The Morgan Hill marchers and other supporters say that period of California history was very influential in their lives. It changed many of their career decisions and political inclinations.
“It changed my life basically,” said Gonzalez, who still lives in Morgan Hill. “Even if I didn’t have a voice back when I was 14, as soon as I turned 18, then I had a lot of responsibility.”
Gonzalez, Cid and their families vote every single election for Democrats, who they see as more supportive of families of color.
Pedigo now directs advocacy for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, one of the largest nonprofit agencies in the area.
Castellanos has worked for 23 years to promote citizenship in immigrant communities. She sees clear parallels between the support Prop. 187 gained in California and the nationwide support for Trump administration policies and rhetoric on immigration.
“I think what we’re fighting about in this country right now is the definition of what is an American,” she said. “The lesson that California has is that when you are inclusive, when you grow with your community, when you acknowledge a diversity, that is an asset.”
The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the James Irvine Foundation.